Joshua Kaufman is a joyful, charismatic and loving man, and it’s hard to fathom that he survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Death March to Dachau and Muhldorf. What’s more, at 90 years old, this very funny man has the most perfect posture of nearly anybody I've met. His dark eyes shine with vibrancy and his long limbs move with alacrity. One would think he spent years studying yoga or working out, and that he keeps a remarkably clean diet. But Joshua has never had a gym membership and doesn’t eat particularly healthy. His amazing posture can only be explained through his unique approach to life.

A Light in the Lion’s Den

Joshua was only 15 years old when he was ordered to separate from the rest of his family and shuffled off to the work section of Auschwitz-Birkenau. He had no idea the cruel fate his family was to face. Only days later, when he noticed the strange smoke coming from the other side of camp, did he learn the full extent of the evil of his environment.

Instead of trying to hide from the horrors that waited around every corner, Kaufman decided he would volunteer for any and every job the Nazis offered the prisoners so that he could get a better understanding of the place he was in. That’s how he wound up with the ghastly task of having to break apart the fused body parts of deceased Jews. The lethal gas the Nazis used caused the bones of people who were close together to stick together. Joshua strove to give these bodies a dignified rest; they could’ve been those of his 94 family members who died in the camps. He didn’t have time to reflect or cry, everything had to be done “quickly.”

His horrific work fueled him with a fierce commitment to make it out of that camp alive. He encouraged his fellow inmates to stay strong and not give into despair. So many spoke of putting an end to the nightmare by throwing themselves onto the electric fencing. He tried to convince them to keep fighting.

Sadly, some of them could not hold on. When dawn revealed the bodies of those who had electrocuted themselves the night before, Kaufman was the first to check through their pockets. He often found a piece of bread that gave him further strength to survive.

On Fire for Zion

After liberation, Kaufman reunited with his father in Hungary. But he couldn’t stay in the land of his oppressors too long. He quickly booked passage on a ship to Palestine, the homeland he’d begged his father to move the family to before the war. The ship was packed and the conditions were far from comfortable, but Kaufman only felt the joy of his nearly realized dream. When the ship neared the port of Jaffa, it came to a stop a mile or so from land. The passengers were told they would have to wait for a fishing boat to come pull them into the harbor. But Kaufman threw off his clothes, jumped into the sea, and swam all the way to the shores of the Holy Land.

After the War

The officials who found him where dumbfounded. They asked him what he’d done with his papers and belongings. He told them he had no papers or belongings - he was just there ready to dedicate his fervent soul to the country.

Over the course of 25 years Kaufman served the Israeli army, fighting in three wars, 1956, 1967 and 1973. He undoubtedly faced so many horrors in the battle zone. But when I asked him if he ever felt fear as a soldier, Kaufman stared at me incredulously. “Fear? I was never afraid. I was so happy to be there with my brothers fighting for my land.”

Led to America by Love

It was Kaufman’s fearless approach that fueled him to propose to Margaret Rosenblum, a Hungarian woman, nearly 15 years his junior. While he was visiting his father in Brooklyn, a friend suggested that they take a road trip and organized them to be at the Rosenblum’s for Shabbat in Los Angeles. He barely spoke any English, but luckily Margaret spoke Hungarian, Yiddish and Hebrew, and they immediately connected.

She accepted his proposal – and just like that, Kaufman started a whole new life for himself in Los Angeles. He asked a friend to sell his belongings in Israel, and he set out to find himself a job. For the past few years, he was a heavy equipment manager in the Israeli army. So he went to a construction site and asked his wife to inquire whether they would hire him. When the construction workers found out he was 45 years old, they laughed and told him to retire.

Unruffled, Kaufman set out to start a new career as a plumber. He studied for his licensing exam until finally he mastered both English and the plumbing skills he needed. He’s still working part-time as a plumber today, driving the same truck he purchased at an auction over 40 years ago, with American and Israeli flags attached to the rooftop.

Building an Unstoppable Family

Joshua and Margaret Kaufman at their wedding

Kaufman was anxious to start a family and within a few years they were blessed with four girls.

Kaufman set out to give his four daughters the best experience of life he could. And that included first-hand experience with his beloved Israel. Though he couldn’t afford to take a year off from work himself, he sent his wife and children there for a year. His goal was that they could learn Hebrew and really experience life in their homeland. Although his own relationship to Judaism is complex, he sent all four girls to Jewish religious schools. “I wanted them to have the religious education I’d had, so they could make their own choice as to how religious of a life they wanted to lead.”

Realistic Acceptance of Light and Darkness

Becoming a father

Kaufman’s simple Fairfax apartment is a legacy to his life, with photographs and newspaper clippings of his various historic adventures decorating the walls. A large family portrait is the centerpiece which is refers to as “his bank account”. Beside his mattress hangs a picture of the Auschwitz concentration camp he was captive in, and if you look closely there are three Israeli fighter planes flying above from a March of the Living commemoration. He will never forget the darkness he underwent – even though he doesn’t fear it.

“You cannot understand what it was like. You can hear my stories, you can try to feel it, but you can never understand,” Kaufman told me.

But when some of his stories from the Holocaust brought me to tears, Kaufman commanded me to “Be happy every day. Go, enjoy life with your husband, have Jewish kids, and make sure they are connected to Israel.”

I could not fully grapple Kaufman’s ability to make space for darkness and light at once, until I recalled a Torah teaching.

Visiting Dachau

Jacob sinks into depression when he thinks his favorite son, Joseph, is dead. In all the years Joseph is alienated from him, prophecy leaves Jacob. He can no longer commune with God and was a shadow of his former self. One could say he was stuck in trauma. It is only after he learned what had truly happened to his son that he regained prophecy. On his journey to meet Joseph in Egypt, a country that at the time was ripe with dark magic and corruption, God reveals himself to Jacob and tells him, “Do not be afraid to descend into Egypt” (Genesis, 46:3).

Jacob was afraid because his grandfather, Abraham, had had a prophecy that his offspring would be slaves in Egypt. However, God promises Jacob that He will be with his offspring in Egypt throughout their “descent” and will eventually lead them out. With this prophecy, Jacob was able to internalize the fact that God is in all things, even in evil, and that everything exists for a reason. With this realization, Jacob was revived and accessed the highest parts of his soul.

How did Jacob achieve this lofty level at this point in his life? He looked darkness in the eye and discerned that it was all emanating from God – and then his fear dissolved. Perhaps Joshua’s commitment to life is fueled by this realization.

May we all be inspired by Joshua and our forefather Jacob to live lovingly and courageously.

Linda Miriam is the Co-Founder of Crunchy Buzz, a health and wellness digital marketing agency.